samedi, février 27, 2010

organic veggie quiche

A few weeks ago, I made this for a baby shower at work. Several folks asked for the recipe, so here goes.

You can make quiche with a variety of strongly flavored cheeses, including: sharp cheddar, gruyere, goat cheese, and French feta (the higher butterfat/ lower salt content makes French a better feta than Greek, Bulgarian, etc. for melting purposes; if using feta, reduce salt slightly). Traditional quiche recipes call for heavy cream, half-and-half, or light cream; I use 1% milk to reduce calories and cholesterol. Variations on this include spinach and onion quiche, broccoli and red onion quiche, chopped celery and leek quiche, etc. To save time, you can use leftover vegetables that have been sauteed in olive oil or butter. Just be sure to add some onion, garlic, or leeks for flavor.

Prep / cooking time: 20/40 minutes
Yield: Two 9-inch quiches, about 16 servings

1 1/2 lbs organic Swiss chard
1/2 lb beet greens (These lend a mild sweetness and a fun pink color to the mix. They may stain your cutting board.)
1 1/2 TBSP garlic, finely chopped OR 3/4 cup chopped onion
1 TBSP butter or olive oil (I prefer the butter for a richer-tasting quiche)
2 piecrusts (I use Trader Joe's piecrusts because they don't have the heavy taste of lard in them)
1 1/2 cups sharp cheddar, shredded
8 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
2 tsp salt, divided
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, divided
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Remove leafy green portion of chard and beet greens and chop roughly. Set aside. Chop stems into 1/2 to 3/4-inch pieces and keep separate from leaves.
  3. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt butter. Saute onion and chard/ beet green stems until just translucent (about 3 minutes). Note: if using garlic instead of onion, omit onion in this step.
  4. Add leafy greens and saute for another minute, then cover pan and let greens wilt for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. If using garlic, add garlic, stir into greens and saute with the lid off for another 2 minutes.
  5. Add 1 tsp of salt and 1/4 tsp pepper and stir until seasoned. If very wet, move greens to the side of pan, tilt slightly, and press on the greens to remove excess juice, then spoon the greens out of the pan, leaving the excess juice behind.
  6. Beat eggs, 1 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper, and nutmeg together until the eggs are well combined. Add milk and beat again until mixture is uniform in color and consistency.
  7. Using a food processor on pulse setting, pulse the veggies until they are finely cut up (almost to the puree stage). Stir vegetables into egg mixture.
  8. Place piecrusts in pie pans. Sprinkle 3/4 cup of cheese over mixture in each pan.
  9. Pour egg mixture over filling. It should just cover the cheese, but a few bits may still be visible about the egg mixture.
  10. Cook in 400F oven for 35 minutes or until filling is browned and set. When you take the quiche out of the oven, the filling will likely be puffed up, because you've essentially made a souffle with the eggs and milk. As it cools, the eggs will settle and become more dense. Let cool, and then enjoy. Refrigerate leftovers.

environmental links to autism, cancer, etc.?

I recently posted the article below to Facebook and got a few comments from friends. One called the article pure speculation. Another pointed out the danger of these types of articles to parents desperate to find a "cure" and improve the lives of their children with autism -- his parents tried chelation therapy on his brother, and it made things "10x worse". Here is how I responded to the comments that were posted, and more about my mindset and motives for sharing the article.

O, your family has endured so much. Over the years, I've been sad each time I hear about what's happening with your brother and the toll it takes on all of you. I can't begin to imagine what it has done to each of you.

D, I don't think pure speculation makes sense. I also don't think the tone of Kristof's article is about pure speculation. He's citing mainstream scientific work and makes a point of calling out that we just don't know enough yet to draw a conclusion. He's doing what he believes is his duty as a journalist, asking questions in the interest of the public. Lastly, he's not some fringe crackpot -- he's a responsible journalist who also happens to have won two Pulitzer prizes.

So where does this leave us? I've seen the FDA and other federal agencies fail to acknowledge the growing number of studies proving that phthalates, organic solvents, Bisphenol-A, etc. are hormone disruptors. Do these chemicals cause autism? Who knows? But when I consider that each study is looking at a chemical in isolation, and not evaluating the aggregate effect of all of the chemicals to which we're exposed, I cringe. And every so often, I cheer, as I did when public pressure forced the FDA to pay attention to BPA and other substances that are finally being acknowledged for making epigenetic changes that lead to cancer.

Meanwhile, like Nicholas Kristof, I've adopted the precautionary principle. That's for a few reasons. The biggest is my own health history (kidney cancer at 28 with no genetic factors in play -- as confirmed by recent tests). The others boil down to:
  1. My skepticism about whether government interests beholden to lobbyists are really going to be neutral and act in the best interest of the public (DDT, smoking, and Agent Orange come to mind) -- which is why I tend to look at the EU's response to many of these policy questions
  2. Luck in having the income level to afford to spend more (because all of this costs more)
  3. My own tendency to choose the 'safer' option, rather than the riskier one.
For me, the precautionary principle means that:
  • I eat on and drink out of glass/ceramic/ porcelain/ stainless steel, when possible. (And not just because it's phthalate-free, but because it's much greener than plastic or styrofoam.)
  • I limit my exposure, when possible, to heavy metals [insert Beavis and Butthead joke here] because mercury and other heavy metals are known neurotoxins and I really don't need the mercury exposure that happens via conventional mascara and certain fish.
  • I've eliminated most shampoos, lotions, and cosmetics that are chock-full of the nasties (phthalates, parabens, mercury, lead, fragrances). (The EU has much more stringent labeling requirements and has already banned most of these substances in cosmetics and requires much more stringent labeling than the US does.)
  • I eat organic and local, when possible. I know my farmer and his family and trust the produce he delivers via my CSA share. I drink organic milk and eat organic meat whenever it's an option. Part of it is because there might be pesticide residues in the food. Part of it is because organic is much better for the environment and the people growing it than petrochemical-fertilized-and-transported food. And part of it is because I think the taste, quality, and freshness are better.
  • I'll choose organic or second-hand clothes for my children (when I eventually have them), because they don't need to be exposed to the hormone disruptors and neurotoxins present in the flame retardants that conventional new baby and kid's clothes sold in the US have on them. (The EU has banned the flame retardants on kid's clothing, in mattresses, etc.)
  • I'll vaccinate my kids, but will spread out those vaccinations as much as possible and probably postpone vaccines like Hep B until the children are older (it is given to every infant these days a few days after birth), because the probability of an infant contracting Hep B is so unlikely that it just doesn't make sense.
Op-Ed Columnist: Do Toxins Cause Autism?
Published: February 24, 2010

Autism was first identified in 1943 in an obscure medical journal. Since then it has become a frighteningly common affliction, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting recently that autism disorders now affect almost 1 percent of children.

Over recent decades, other development disorders also appear to have proliferated, along with certain cancers in children and adults. Why? No one knows for certain. And despite their financial and human cost, they presumably won’t be discussed much at Thursday’s White House summit on health care.

Yet they constitute a huge national health burden, and suspicions are growing that one culprit may be chemicals in the environment. An article in a forthcoming issue of a peer-reviewed medical journal, Current Opinion in Pediatrics, just posted online, makes this explicit.

The article cites “historically important, proof-of-concept studies that specifically link autism to environmental exposures experienced prenatally.” It adds that the “likelihood is high” that many chemicals “have potential to cause injury to the developing brain and to produce neurodevelopmental disorders.”

The author is not a granola-munching crank but Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and chairman of the school’s department of preventive medicine. While his article is full of cautionary language, Dr. Landrigan told me that he is increasingly confident that autism and other ailments are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed.

“The crux of this is brain development,” he said. “If babies are exposed in the womb or shortly after birth to chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime.”

Concern about toxins in the environment used to be a fringe view. But alarm has moved into the medical mainstream. Toxicologists, endocrinologists and oncologists seem to be the most concerned.

One uncertainty is to what extent the reported increases in autism simply reflect a more common diagnosis of what might previously have been called mental retardation. There are genetic components to autism (identical twins are more likely to share autism than fraternal twins), but genetics explains only about one-quarter of autism cases.

Suspicions of toxins arise partly because studies have found that disproportionate shares of children develop autism after they are exposed in the womb to medications such as thalidomide (a sedative), misoprostol (ulcer medicine) and valproic acid (anticonvulsant). Of children born to women who took valproic acid early in pregnancy, 11 percent were autistic. In each case, fetuses seem most vulnerable to these drugs in the first trimester of pregnancy, sometimes just a few weeks after conception.

So as we try to improve our health care, it’s also prudent to curb the risks from the chemicals that envelop us. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is drafting much-needed legislation that would strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act. It is moving ahead despite his own recent cancer diagnosis, and it can be considered as an element of health reform. Senator Lautenberg says that under existing law, of 80,000 chemicals registered in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has required safety testing of only 200. “Our children have become test subjects,” he noted.

One peer-reviewed study published this year in Environmental Health Perspectives gave a hint of the risks. Researchers measured the levels of suspect chemicals called phthalates in the urine of pregnant women. Among women with higher levels of certain phthalates (those commonly found in fragrances, shampoos, cosmetics and nail polishes), their children years later were more likely to display disruptive behavior.

Frankly, these are difficult issues for journalists to write about. Evidence is technical, fragmentary and conflicting, and there’s a danger of sensationalizing risks. Publicity about fears that vaccinations cause autism — a theory that has now been discredited — perhaps had the catastrophic consequence of lowering vaccination rates in America.

On the other hand, in the case of great health dangers of modern times — mercury, lead, tobacco, asbestos — journalists were too slow to blow the whistle. In public health, we in the press have more often been lap dogs than watchdogs.

At a time when many Americans still use plastic containers to microwave food, in ways that make toxicologists blanch, we need accelerated research, regulation and consumer protection.

“There are diseases that are increasing in the population that we have no known cause for,” said Alan M. Goldberg, a professor of toxicology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. “Breast cancer, prostate cancer, autism are three examples. The potential is for these diseases to be on the rise because of chemicals in the environment.”

The precautionary principle suggests that we should be wary of personal products like fragrances unless they are marked phthalate-free. And it makes sense — particularly for children and pregnant women — to avoid most plastics marked at the bottom as 3, 6 and 7 because they are the ones associated with potentially harmful toxins.

mardi, février 23, 2010

feeling beautiful, inside and out

I was talking to some friends the other day about their pregnancies. One is having a boy. When she said that she was thrilled to be having a boy, I probed her as to why. Her answer: "It's easier to be a man in this culture than it is to be a woman." I agreed, and added that it's easier to be a man in pretty much every culture on this planet.

Another friend pointed out that there's something quite feminist about raising a compassionate son. I pondered that and have to say that I also agree with her viewpoint. Frankly, when I become a parent, I hope that my first child will be a boy, simply because (in general) they tend to internalize things less. The way I see it -- if I'm going to have a girl, I would love to have some parenting experience under my belt before foisting myself (and my psyche) on my daughter.

When I think back on the messages about body image I got as a girl and adult, my mother's own self-loathing (of her body) is more and more obvious, and I'm very sad for her. I have to believe that she said and did what she did because she loved me and hoped to shield me from some of the issues she had dealt with. But at the end of the day, a mother's voice is quite powerful and her negative messages about weight and "ideal" beauty colored my sense of self-worth in very ugly ways. The ensuing knots in my psyche took years to undo (with the help of several therapists, lovers, and friends), and are something I will always have to consciously work to dispel. Fortunately, I've finally learned how to move through life without craving approval and acceptance from authority figures and loved ones.

It's something I still struggle with, but that I am feeling more optimistic about as I move toward parenthood. I have to hope that when I'm a mom (to a boy or a girl), I'll be like Minnesota Matron. Her essay below helped me reframe my thoughts and feel a great deal more capable of raising kids who are healthy inside and out and who have a very positive sense of self.
Is it Really Getting Better Folks? (by Minnesota Matron)
Friday, February 19, 2010

My, my, my. . . the Matron read the Kevin Smith comments with a HIGH degree of interest. She chortled at Mrs. G’s temporary move from Switzerland to . . . well, at least Ireland.

But the outright vilification of flesh gave the Matron pause. Why? She’s thinking of our daughters. Yes, yes, the boys –and she has two of them—feel pressure to adhere to cultural ideals, yes, indeed. But she’s here to argue that there’s a unique condemnation of flesh in females. Is there any male counterpoint to Oprah’s battle of the bulge? Starr Williams? Ricki Lake? She could go on and on and on. For every Jared, there’s a Jenny Craig, Valerie Bertinelli, Kirstey Alley and every celebrity who has ever given birth. The Matron would love to take every “how she got her body back after baby” article to kerosene and torch. That would be one big bonfire. She’d toss in a few pages on Jennifer Aniston’s abs, just to make that flame burn brighter.

Every few days, she’s reminded of how cellular these issues are to women, how this deep-tissue condemnation of female flesh is being passed along to our daughters. You see, the Matron has a good friend – a rail-thin woman who, not unlike the Matron, works toward that condition--- who cannot get her daughter to be thin enough. The daughter is not fat. Not thin. She is firmly in the middle, a 12 year old with new breasts, hips, and a little bit of tummy. The Matron’s friend, Jay we’ll say, is routinely saying things like this:

“I’m taking Kay for a walk tonight to make sure she burns some calories.”

“Do you pack carbs for Scarlett's lunch? I’m just leaving carbs out of Kay’s diet unless she asks for something like a cookie.”

“I know, I know, I’m worried about the weight. But it’s so much easier to be thin. Your life as a woman is easier.” (True)

“Kay? Do you really need to eat a whole hamburger or is half okay?”

“Girls? Can we skip a snack after school and save our appetites for dinner?”

The Matron is not condemning Jay but putting her on a spectrum, a spectrum in which the Matron herself, survivor of an eating disorder, is firmly situated. With three spindly young ones, the Matron hasn’t (yet) navigated the land of ‘watch what you eat.’ But she sees plenty of mothers, not just Jay, fretting about their daughters’ physiques.

Last week, Jay’s daughter, Kay, said this to Scarlett. The Matron overheard from her secret spot out in the open two feet away from the kitchen table:

Kay: “Scarlett, let’s go on a cleansing diet next week. No carbs, no wheat, no diary, no meat, no sugar. What do you think?”

Scarlett: “Sounds good! We can get healthy just like our Moms!”

Oh darlings. It is a little more complicated. Please don't emulate your mothers.

Move beyond us.

What are your wars and/or wishes with a child's weight?

Minnesota Matron is a regular WC contributor. You can read more of her here.

dimanche, février 21, 2010

loving the fates

I'm not a spiritual person and I don't put much credence in fate. But I do believe that some loves are simply meant to be.
Modern Love: Signs, Wonders and Fates Fulfilled
Published: February 20, 2010

THE first time I saw Frédéric, he was wearing a long monastic habit and carrying a battered teapot. “Would you like some tea?” he asked in English tinged with a French accent.

When I said “yes,” he smiled and lifted the teapot high, tipping it slightly so the tea poured in a long, steaming arc. The man clearly poured a lot of tea.

At 27, I had just arrived in Syria on a yearlong fellowship to study the Prophet Jesus in Islam. I was living in a dilapidated room in the Old City of Damascus with decaying wooden doors, a nonflushing toilet and a 73-year-old Armenian neighbor.

This was six years ago, when refugees from the war in Iraq were flooding the city, and my Arabic studies were progressing at a painfully slow pace. The cacophony of Damascus life exhausted me, not to mention the stream of admonitions from my neighbor: “What? Are you wearing that outside the house? People can see your legs! What? You’re from Texas? Do you know George Bush? Ha! Ha!”

By the end of each week, I was ready to escape to the desert.

The monastery of Deir Mar Musa is perched atop a mountain, and it can be reached only by climbing 350 stairs. The monastery had been built into the cliff some 1,500 years before, and the building occupies a space that appears to be nestled exactly between earth and sky. Soon I was visiting the monastery almost every weekend. Whenever I arrived in the courtyard, that young French novice monk would appear, asking me if I would like some tea.

I soon learned that Frédéric was in his third and final year of novitiate, having arrived on a journey through the Middle East several years before and more or less staying put. In that time he had come to look exactly as one might imagine a desert monk to look. He possessed a mane of wild curly hair, the requisite leather belt and sandals, and hands often swollen from beekeeping.

Beyond offering and accepting tea, he and I didn’t speak much. He seemed too otherworldly for me, and I had just had my heart broken by a man in Boston, leaving me suspicious of men in general, even novice monks.

We became friends only when I decided to become a nun.

Two months after I arrived in Damascus, I left the city for the monastery to undergo the monthlong Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I spent weeks in silence. I prayed. In my afternoons on top of desert mountains, I wrestled with a difficult family past, a history of depression and the feeling of helplessness I experienced when confronting the chaos of a region I had come to love. Finally, I chose to offer up my life to God. In the words of my childhood religion teacher, I decided to “help carry the cross.”

I never knew if God accepted my offer. My body didn’t. A few weeks after I decided to become a nun, I grew so sick that it hurt to breathe. I spent two weeks in my bed in Damascus waiting to die, allowing my 73-year-old neighbor to ply me with 7-Up, which he insisted could cure any malady from flu to cancer. My neighbors referred to my illness as “the sickness of sadness.”

When I finally returned to the monastery, Frédéric found me sitting alone in the chapel, weak and overwhelmed. He approached quietly and sat near me for a long time. Finally, I began to speak about my month in the desert, about my confusion regarding my decision to become a nun. He listened.

Getting up to leave, he said, “I never really thought you should become a nun.”


“Because you don’t believe in resurrection.”

He didn’t say it cruelly. In fact, he sounded sad.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s simple, Stephanie. You don’t love your life.”

And I didn’t — not the life I had left behind in America, and not the life I had assumed in Syria. But I wanted to start.

That February in Damascus, I set out in search of beauty. I studied the Koran, pausing to hear the music hidden in the verses. I watched children playing at the Ummayad Mosque at dusk, their bodies glowing golden as the sun set on the marble tiles. I began to speak Arabic, delighting in the cadence of the Syrian dialect. Then, on Thursday nights, I traveled to the monastery, where I prayed, walked in the desert and talked to Frédéric.

In the beginning, we spoke mostly about God. But we recognized something familiar in each other. Before long he was telling me about his childhood in Brittany, about his travels in Canada, the Far East and throughout the Arab world. I told him about sailing the Nile and walking across Spain. One Saturday morning we sang every Beatles song that we could think of while we washed the dishes.

Then we returned to the “life of the angels,” the monastic day that is siphoned off by bells and prayers. That evening after the meditation, when Frédéric picked up his guitar to play the hymn before the Mass, instead of “Alleluia,” he played the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” I knew he was telling me a secret.

There is no graceful way to fall in love with a man already engaged to God. By April, Frédéric and I knew that our relationship had passed the border of friendship. I blamed myself. Was I trying to compete with the divine? Was I temptation embodied, like those evil women who seduce monks in the legends of the Desert Fathers?

For his part, Frédéric tried to make sense of our relationship from the world in which he lived. “Remember, Stephanie: this is a spiritual love. Like the love between St. Francis and St. Clare.”

But Clare never daydreamed about retiring to a farmhouse in the French Alps with Francis and having three children.

“It’s clear we’re meant to be together,” he insisted. “But I’ve already been called to be a monk. Maybe this is God’s way of telling you that you should be a nun, after all.”

But if there was anything I was certain of now, it was that I was not meant to be a nun. For months I had agonized over whether or not I had a calling. Yet from the moment I fell in love with Frédéric, I had never questioned the truth of my emotions. I knew, for the first time in my life, that a calling felt like this.

So I tried to stay away from the monastery. I tried not to influence Frédéric in his choice. I even bought him a new monastic belt, as if donating to his ascetic wardrobe would somehow render me guiltless. He called me most evenings, and though we spoke of little other than studies and prayers, we knew that we did not want a day to pass without hearing from each other.

One afternoon he asked me to teach him the Koran.

That night, I sat down and opened my Koran to the story of the Prophet Joseph. A mystic, a stranger, he was so beautiful that the women who saw him became distracted from their work and cut their hands. His life was suffused with the memory of a night in his childhood when his brothers abandoned him at the bottom of the well. In the moment he lost hope, he received a message telling him the meaning of his life.

I could not tell Frédéric I thought he was beautiful. I could not tell him that sometimes the secrets of our lives do not belong to us but instead are given in the moment we feel abandoned at the bottom of the well.

Instead I sent him the passages on the Prophet Joseph. I added a note, saying that it contained the story of a beautiful young man, exiled far from his family, who dreamed great dreams and through those dreams understood the world.

It was the first love letter I ever sent him.

For the next two months, Frédéric and I courted each other through Koranic love letters. I hoped he would learn about me through the stories I loved.

I waited. I lighted candles, and then felt terrible about asking God for this favor. I tried to study. Most of all I wrestled with the uncomfortable fact that Frédéric was a novice monk who believed deeply in his vocation. But he was also in love with me. It was as though, he told me, he had been given two callings, and then asked to do the impossible: choose between love and love.

He decided to ask for God to send him a sign.

My lasting memory of that summer is of me in a crumbling room in the ancient city, and Frédéric in the desert, both looking out our windows for signs. For a few weeks everything became miraculous: ceramic tiles on old buildings, children holding hands.

On one of my last days in Syria, Frédéric passed me on the stairs of the monastery and handed me a note: “Maybe God finally spoke. I met you.”

I RETURNED to America as planned, and the next month Frédéric traveled to India to make a choice, far from the influence of abbots, monks and me. He wished to be invisible, so he wore his ordinary clothes.

In a crowded train station in Mumbai, he boarded a train to Kerala. Soon the countryside was flying past. He wrote in his notebook: “I can feel a miracle coming.”

The train slowed at the next station, and two elderly nuns boarded, followed by a young Indian girl.

How strange to see them here, he thought. They looked for the number on their ticket. It was next to his seat.

The two nuns approached him. “Are you going to Cochin?” they asked.


“Then can you please take care of her? She’s traveling alone.”

Frédéric nodded.

It was quiet for a long time. When the train started moving, the girl glanced at him.

“Where are you going?” he asked her.

“I was a novice in a Carmelite monastery for three years,” she said. “And now I’ve decided to leave and return to my family.”

He looked at her in disbelief for a moment, and then smiled.

“Me, too,” he said.

And now we are a family.

Stephanie Saldana lives in Jerusalem. Her memoir about her life in Syria, “The Bread of Angels,” was just published by Doubleday.

samedi, février 06, 2010

chess "hotties" and social stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport

According to,
When Bobby Fischer was in a Japanese jail in 2004 for using a canceled passport, Boris Spassky wrote to President Bush to free Bobby or place him also in jail and supply them with a chess set. Bobby, in a rare display of humor, requested instead the young Russian model Alexandra Kosteniuk, whom they say is as beautiful as the young Elizabeth Taylor.

Alexandra is an International Grandmaster with a Fide rating of 2515.

Kosteniuk’s motto is “beauty and intelligence can go together”.
Kosteniuk is correct, yet female chess players are usually noted for their beauty, and not their brains. Take this contest, where viewers are encouraged to rate the most photogenic women chess players. More than half the women are master level and above, but they are displayed in order of their beauty (as determined by popular vote).

My understanding is that while there is definitely no shortage of professional female chess players, many tournaments and leagues are still separated by gender. This -- despite the fact that chess isn't usually a contact sport. (Yes, I know about chessboxing. I'm not referring to that.)

Finally, in Checkmate: The role of social stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport, a paper in the European Journal of Psychology, Dr. Anne Maass, et. al., pitted male and female players against one another to examine the role of gender in performance outcomes. In the study, women had a 50% performance decline when made aware they were playing male opponents. I find this interesting, but unsurprising, given the social pressures for women not to confront men in most cultures. If women and girls are socialized to be less confrontational (perhaps even submissive in some cultures) in their interactions with men, then it would likely carry over in competitive and other situations. I'm wondering how culture (religion, nationality, etc.) exacerbates this and if any other studies looked more in-depth at performance outcomes in societies where gender social constructs are especially rigid.
Thanks, Jimmy O.